The Spanish and Portuguese invasions of the Americas were nothing less than a catastrophe for the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Whole cultures were obliterated, empires fell, and the survivors found themselves at the mercy of conquerors whose major priorities were the extraction of mineral wealth and the exploitation of labor. To those ends, the Native peoples were frequently enslaved outright to work on plantations or mines. The use of slave labor only grew over time, although by the middle of the sixteenth century Europeans were increasingly turning to African slaves, spawning one of the most horrendous injustices in history: the Transatlantic Slave Trade (considered in a following chapter). European states in the Americas were thus built on the backs and with the blood of both the Native inhabitants and enslaved Africans.
The impact of the conquests on Europe took longer to become entirely evident, but in the long run the conquest of the Americas sparked the beginning of the process by which Europe became one of the dominant global regions. Europeans now had access to not only enormous quantities of precious metal, but vast new natural resources (from huge stocks of fish to millions of acres of fertile land) that were to bolster European power for centuries to come. It is no coincidence that the year 1492 is often used as the starting point of the early modern period: when both global hemispheres came into sustained contact for the first time, it was the starting point of massive change for the human species as a whole.
Image Citations (Wikimedia Commons):
Caravel - Public Domain
Columbus voyages - Roke
Spanish conquest - Public Domain